Up Close With Trini Lopez
This first interview installment focuses on a talented vocalist’s rise to superstardom during a period of time when minorities were not widely accepted in a dominant Anglo mainstream music environment: Trinidad “Trini” Lopez fits easily into this scenario, and with the aid of his parent’s strong positive family values, his never-ending confidence in his superior vocal talent, and his firm refusal to accept a name change, Trini met this challenge head on and emerged into one of the world’s greatest pop singers of the Twentieth Century.
[Dick Stewart] An Internet bio states that you were born in Dallas, Texas, on May 15, 1937, as Trinidad Lopez, III. In what Mexican town did your parents reside before moving to Dallas, and was it a case of difficult living conditions and trying to make a reasonable income that prompted their move to the United States? In addition, did your parents always call you by your nickname, “Trini?”
Trini Lopez My parents were born and raised in Moroleon, Mexico. My parents had to come to the United States illegally because there was no work in Mexico for them and they were very poor. Trini is not a nickname. Trini is short for Trinidad.
[Dick Stewart] Your father was a guitarist, and your Internet bio says that he taught you how to play the instrument. Did he perform professionally? Was the genre of music that he played mostly along the lines of Tex-Mex music, country and western tunes, or songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s made popular by the American mainstream artists of the time?
Trini Lopez My father was a singer, musician, actor, and dancer. My father was never a professional performer. He married at a young age so he had to do manual labor to survive. The music that my father performed in Mexico was Mexican folk songs and rancheras.
[Dick Stewart] Trini, your Internet bio also indicates that you and your four sisters and one brother experienced difficult times during your early childhood in Dallas. Was it all work and no play, and did you live in a neighborhood or in the country? In addition, what did you do to entertain yourself during your free time when you were a child: kick-the-can, hide-and-go-seek, catch minnows and crawdads in the nearby acequias (ditches), etc.?
Trini Lopez I grew up in Dallas in a Mexican and Black ghetto. It was also all work and no play. To entertain myself as a young boy, I use to run around with a local gang. We got into a lot of trouble until my dad put a stop to it.
[Dick Stewart] I grew up in a Hispanic community in the North Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and became very assimilated in the New Mexican Latin culture to such an extent that the local Spanish dialect as well as the music became a principal part of my life. (I later earned a bachelors degree in Spanish at UNM.) As a result, I owned a record label (Casanova Records) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that specialized mostly in rancheras, such as the four-piece conjunto norteno style like that of Mexico’s late great Cornelio Reyna, as well as the orchestral groups similar to that of Alfonso Ramos. How influenced were you by this genre of music and what was your father’s take on it?
Trini Lopez I was never really influenced by rancheras and four-piece conjuntos growing up. I was always influenced with popular music and rock and roll.
[Dick Stewart] During my youth in the ‘40s and ‘50s, my attire and that of my compadres was taps on the soles of black, patent-leather shoes (“chanclas”); black pegged pants extremely low at the waist (‘tramos”); purple or pink, long-sleeved shirts buttoned at the neck (“lisas”), and double-buckled black skinny belts. Our cars (or “ranflas” as we called them) were bronze or pink-colored Ford, Chevy or Mercury V-8s with glass pack or Smitty mufflers that were lowered in the back with six-inch shackles, and decorated with moon or Oldsmobile flipper hubcaps. We were fiercely protective of our neighborhood and didn’t take kindly to strangers, especially those who didn’t dress like us. Sound familiar?
Trini Lopez I do relate to that look of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but my father was a very strict man and he never allowed me to ever have that "pachuco" look.
[Dick Stewart] Trini, back in the ‘40s through the early ‘60s, a lot of pressure by mainstream society was placed on the Latino families to not speak Spanish in public—especially in schools. I recall many times when Hispanic students were sent to the principal's office for a session of corporal punishment for doing so. As a result, many of the Latino parents gave in to these pressures and didn’t speak Spanish at home, thereby preventing their children and generations to come in the development of a reasonable degree of fluency. When these kids grew into adults, many of them felt robbed, so to speak. Did this occur with your birth family?
Trini Lopez No, with me it was just the opposite. The moment my siblings and I walked into our home, we were NOT allowed to speak English what so ever.
[Dick Stewart] I’m sure you, like most of the kids during the ‘50s, had your favorite teen restaurant hangout. Do you recall its name; and when you dropped the nickels into the jukeboxes, what songs would you typically pick and why? Did the music of Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Valens have a big effect on you?
Trini Lopez After school our favorite hang out was not a restaurant. It was a drugstore. My friends and I would buy a cherr[y] coke; that was all we could afford. Then we would put a nickel into the jukebox and listen to "kat" music. In those days that is what America call[ed] black artist; i.e. early, early records by T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, and Gatemouth Brown. Later in the middle to late '50s, I started to be influenced by two artists who would later become my friends, Elvis and Buddy Holly!!
[Dick Stewart] Were you ever a fan of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s guitar instrumental rock and roll efforts (now referred to as “surf rock”) by such artists as Duane Eddy, The Ventures, and the Fireballs?
Trini Lopez Yes, I enjoyed their records very much.
[Dick Stewart] What was the name of your first band in Dallas, when was it formed, and can you recall any of its members and what instrument did each played? In addition, what were your typical venues?
Trini Lopez My first group was called Trini Lopez and his Combo. My tenor and alto saxophone player's name was Joe Donnell, my drummer's name was Lee Haines, and on bass was Roger Evans. We played a lot of Air Force and Army bases. Usually they were NCO and Airman's clubs. We also played a lot of small clubs and birthday parties and weddings.
[Dick Stewart] Were your parents, at first, resistant of you wanting to become a performing artist?
Trini Lopez My mother never wanted me to be a musician. The reason I became a musician, singer, etc., was because my father was the one who encouraged me to learn something constructive. My dad taught me my first Mexican folk songs that he used to sing when he was a boy. My father bought me a $12 guitar at a pawnshop that he could not afford. I fell in love with my guitar and music instantly.
[Dick Stewart] Did Trini Lopez and his Combo have its beginnings while you were in high school? In addition, what was the name of your high school?
Trini Lopez From grammar school to high school, it was always Trini Lopez and his Combo. The name of my high school was N.R. Crozier Tech High School.
[Dick Stewart] You say that Elvis and Holly were your good friends. Rumor has it that Valens was a compadre of yours, as well. Is that true? Certainly you were influenced by his hit, “La Bamba,” right?
Trini Lopez I never met Richie Valens because by the time I came to Hollywood in 1960, he had been dead about 6-8 months. I was not influenced by Richie Valens’ version of La Bamba because I was singing with that rock-and-roll version of “La Bamba” in Dallas long before Richie recorded it. I was about four or five years older than Richie, and I was taught “La Bamba” when I was a young boy.
[Dick Stewart] What was it that gave you the indication that success was right around the corner? Did some high-profile music individual more or less check your group out at a gig, approach you, and say in effect, “You’ve got what it takes, son. I’ve got plans for you?” In addition, was it just you of interest and not the band itself?
Trini Lopez Without sounding like I'm bragging, I was always told from a very young age that I had "what it takes."
[Dick Stewart] How is it that you connected with Norman Petty? Did you hear about it via Holly himself or through someone else? Was Petty’s your first studio?
Trini Lopez I was asked by Buddy Holly when I met him after one of my shows in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1958, "Would you like to meet my record producer, Norman Petty?" The first studio where I recorded was a little studio in my hometown of Dallas when I was 18 years old.
[Dick Stewart] What was your first impression of Norman Petty? Was he a likable individual and easy to work with?
Trini Lopez My first impression of Norman Petty was he was not friendly at all. I don't think he was likeable at all.
[Dick Stewart] What were the tracks that you laid down at Norman’s studio and did you consider him right on as a recording engineer?
Trini Lopez Because my musicians turned on me with jealousy, probably encouraged by Norman Petty, my band would not allow me to do any singing. All we did were instrumentals.
[Dick Stewart] Jimmy Torres, lead guitarist of “Wheel’s” fame (The String-A-Longs), told me in a July 2004 TLM interview that he felt prejudiced by Petty because of his Hispanic heritage. Did you?
Trini Lopez ABSOLUTELY!
[Dick Stewart] Trini, here are some questions about your relationship with the great Buddy Holly: 1. What was it about Buddy’s demeanor et al, that inspired your friendship with him? 2. Did you meet his widow, Maria Elena, at that time and do you think that she was the catalyst for his fallout with Petty? 3. Did Buddy himself confide in you about his relationship with Norman as well as his music career overall?
(To be continued …)
Reprinted with permission from “The Lance Monthy.” For more information, to contact the author, and to sign up for the author’s newsletter, click on the author’s name at the top of the page.